“Ain’t No Grave:” The Eschatology of Johnny Cash
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
I hate country music. But I love Johnny Cash.
This week saw the release of “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” the final album from Johnny Cash, and the second album to be released after his death in 2003, and today we celebrate the birthday of a man who was less a singer than a legend.
Musically the album retreads old ground, and its initial simplicity drives home the reality that these are the final tracks to be scraped from the barrel. But like most of his other work, the album is bathed in the currents of a deep faith that blankets his roughshod past. It was a faith handed down from his parents. Cash says:
“My father told me early on about having a life in God. [My parents’] faith was the light of their life. They always professed it–their faith and their relationship with Christ. I learned by example, from watching them get through their struggles. They’d always come back to their faith.”
Elsewhere he remarks that “telling others is part of our faith all right, but the way we live it speaks louder than we can say it…The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all.”
And so in his songs we find a man of deep faith and fierce conviction, a man who, in his own words, loves “songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother. And God.”
Songs that attract the attention of fellow musicians. In the liner notes of “The Essential Johnny Cash,” Bono remarks: “Locusts and honey…not since John The Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness…. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash.”
And this faith only grew deeper as the years wore on. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I find something uniquely stirring in his gravelly baritone – there is something to be said for the sound of the elderly man’s voice, full of cobwebs and memory.
It was John Owen who suggested that maturity brings more struggle, not less:
“Later in the Christian life…God sees that the exercise of humility, godly sorrow, fear, diligent warring with temptations and all things that strike at the very root of faith and love, are now needed….Older, more experienced Christians often have greater troubles, temptations and difficulties in the world. God has a new work for them to do. He no plans that all the graces they have be used in new and harder ways. They may not find their spiritual desires to be as strong as before or have such delight in spiritual duties as they had before. Because of this, they feel that grace has dried up in them. They do not know where they are or what they are. But in spite of all this, the real work of sanctification is still thriving in them, and the Holy Spirit is still working effectively in them. God is faithful. Therefore, let us cling to our hope without wavering.” (John Owen, The Holy Spirit)
In his music, Cash embodied a man who was no stranger to struggle, but never far from hope.
THE ESCHATOLOGY OF CASH
Historically, the church has spoken the singular word “eschatology.” Eschatology most directly means the study of “last things,” and has, over the course of the last century, spawned a morbid fascination with the end of the world – a fascination that transcends the usual division between sacred and secular. But the word is something of a misnomer, for the study of eschatology is equally devoted to the study of “first things,” inasmuch as it reflects the hope of one day starting again. Healing. Renewal. And far from the disembodied, fluffy-cloud pictures we have of “heaven,” orthodox Christianity emphasizes resurrection, that the dead will, quite literally, be one day raised. It is, according to N. T. Wright, “life after life after death.”
REMINDERS FROM THE DEAD
And perhaps what makes the album so uniquely haunting is that these songs of hope and redemption come to us from beyond the grave. In the album I find traces of three unique themes, all of which serve as reminders of a hope beyond the pain of this world, and that forever is not simply a word. These themes are (1) Resurrection hope, (2) The journey of faith and (3) Future restoration.
The opening track features the chorus:“There ain’t no grave can hold my body down / When I hear that trumpet sound I’m gonna rise right out of the ground.” The promise of resurrection is more sharply addressed in the song “1 Corinthians 15:55” (a verse from the Bible that talks exclusively about the promise of resurrection) where Cash weaves the Biblical quote into the cadence of the chorus: “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory? Oh life, you are a shining path / And hope springs eternal just over the rise / When I see my Redeemer beckoning me.”
The Journey of Faith
Scripture frequently describes faith as a journey, perhaps most explicitly in the Book of Hebrews (cf. 11:1-10, 37-38; 2:15-18; 6:20; 10:34; 13:13-14). On a Sheryl Crow cover, he sings of “a train that’s heading straight to heaven’s gate, to heaven’s gate. / And on the way, child and man and woman wait, watch and wait, for redemption day.” Redemption, sings cash, is “buried in the countryside. It’s exploding in the shells at night. It’s everywhere a baby cries. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom.” The journey metaphor appears on a later track as well, where Cash sings a Tony Paxton cover in which he openly admits that he “can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.”
On “Cool Water” (originally a Bob Nolan song) Cash makes clear that this hope is yet unfulfilled. “All day I’ve faced a barren waste / Without the taste of water, cool water / Old Dan and I with throats burned dry / And souls that cry for water / Cool, clear, water.” It is a song that reflects yearning, and reflects hope for future satisfaction, a theme repeated in the contrast between fading memories (“For the Good Times”) and future fulfillment (“Satisfied Mind”).
This satisfaction is to be experienced not only as physical resurrection (above), but also the absence of physical and emotional pain. Revelation’s closing words speak of a new heaven and new earth, wherein God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
It is a theme breathed to life in the song “It Don’t Hurt Anymore:” “It don’t hurt anymore / All my teardrops are dried / No more walkin’ the floor / With that burnin’ inside / Just to think it could be / Time has opened the door / And at last I am free / I don’t hurt anymore.”
Scripture maintains that hope is not merely personal, but has powerful implications for the social realm as well. We’re given the promise of peace and stability, when weapons of war will become farm equipment (Isaiah 2:4). Singing an Ed McCurdy song, Cash speaks of a dream: “Last night I had the strangest dream I’d ever dreamed before / I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war / I dreamed I saw a mighty room filled with / women and men / And the paper they were signing said they’d never fight again.”
The album brings all these themes together with the closing song “Aloha ‘Oe” (yes, that Hawaiian song by Queen Lili’uokalani), seemingly an odd choice for the country singer, but a clear choice in its repetition of the familiar chorus, “until we meet again.”
VANITY OF VANITIES: HEARING CASH THROUGH QOHOLETH
Derek Kidner compares the Book of Ecclesiastes to “a great house in the grip of slow, inexorable decay” (from The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes). Qoholeth, the book’s author (though he writes as if he were Solomon), takes us on a tour of a haunted mansion, in whose many rooms we find the shadows and ghosts of a former life of luxury, now reduced to mere cinders and memory. Life is “vanity” and “meaningless,” phrases often repeated by our guide to emphasize that the SUV’s, the Louis Vitton purses, the iPods we listen to, even our empty religious practices are ultimately mirages on the spiritual landscape, offering only illusory versions of the happiness we crave.
And I find that Cash’s music is haunted by similar spirits. One can hardly watch the video to “Hurt” and not see something of Qoholeth’s wisdom crying out to us – punctuated by Cash pouring wine over a decadent meal as a display of the “worth” of his “empire of dirt.” But Cash concludes the song by wishing for a second chance, to “start again / a million miles away,” promising to “keep” himself, and “find a way.”
Qoholeth concludes his book in poetic style, pleading with his readers, then and now, to “remember the Creator in the days of your youth, before times of trouble come and you find no pleasure in them.” The poem that concludes Ecclesiastes 12 is that of a broken old man pleading with the young not to waste their lives on the vain, meaningless things of life, but to find solace in God’s wisdom and truth.
This is the message that Cash came to embody, as someone who struggled through life, and offers wisdom at its end.
To that end, solidarity with the marginalized became, quite literally, the uniform of the “man in black.” Bono remarked that “Johnny Cash doesn’t sing to the damned. He sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might just prefer their company.” And so he wears black…
“for the poor and the beaten down…for the prisoner …for those who never read, Or listened to the words that Jesus said….for the sick and lonely old, for the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold…for the lives that could have been…for the thousands who have died, Believen’ that the Lord was on their side…for another hundred thousand who have died, Believen’ that we all were on their side.” (Johnny Cash, “Man in Black”)
But of life itself? “I’m not bitter.” he says. “Why should I be bitter? I’m thrilled to death with life. Life is—the way God has given it to me was just a platter—a golden platter of life laid out there for me. It’s been beautiful.”
Happy Birthday, Johnny.
Until we meet again.
All quotes above come from Urbanski’s book unless otherwise noted. I’ll leave you with three resources on Johnny Cash that are all worth looking at.
Walk the Line. An all-around solid film that focuses on Cash’s early life. Phoenix and Witherspoon deliver surprisingly good performances, and yes, they even do all their own singing. While his faith is admittedly minimized in the context of the film, there is nonetheless a redemptive theme that runs throughout. It’s on my “worth seeing” list, and certainly worth discussing (one reason why more churches should have movie clubs). You can download Craig Detweiler’s excellent study guide to the film here.
The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash, David Urbanski. Urbanski’s book is an excellent biography that highlights the way that faith shaped the life of Johnny Cash. It is an unvarnished treatment of the rough patches as well as the good, replete with quotations to allow firsthand insight into his life and spirituality.
The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend, Steve Turner. I have not had occasion to read this book, but I’m enough of a fan of Turner’s other work to add this to my recommended reading list. Whichever book you choose to read, I doubt you’ll find yourself disappointed.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.